I’ll never forget the time my Mommy & Me group braved dinner with our young toddlers at an Italian restaurant. We made it through ordering the food before all hell broke loose. One kid started crying, so they all started crying, except the little bugger who discovered it was much more fun to throw bread sticks and sugar packets.
“Did it ever occur to you ladies to just stay home?” griped an older woman from a nearby table. Maybe she was kidding, maybe she wasn’t, but it made me feel like giving up. I’m glad I didn’t.
There are a lot of reasons why a mom might want to take her family out to dinner; not having to cook or clean up afterward is chief among them. It also feels good to be social and see other adult humans, to have a reason to put on pants, and to eat something just because it’s yummy, not because it conforms to everyone else’s weird food restrictions.
So don’t give up, mamas. You deserve to go to restaurants. All it takes is a little advanced planning and patience. Here is my tried and true survival guide to dining out with little ones:
1. Go early – If a restaurant opens for dinner at 5:00 pm, be there at 4:59. You will have your pick of tables (I like a back corner) and attentive service, plus you won’t be killing the vibe for any single people on dates, who will arrive much later.
2. Whenever possible, sit outside – An outdoor table is your best friend, because falling food is quickly snatched by birds, excessive child noise blends in with the traffic and there are many exciting sights and sounds to distract young kids. Who cares if it’s 50 degrees–sit outside!
3. Know the menu – Waste zero time ordering food. Glance at the kids’ menu online so you can ask who wants chicken tenders and who wants butter pasta (what else?) on the car ride over, then order the moment their butts hit the seats.
4. Bring snacks – Yes, this is a classic case of bringing sand to the beach, but if the food is taking forever and you can head off a meltdown with a box of raisins, I say DO IT.
5. Bring entertainment (just not the digital kind) – For years, my diaper bag was stocked with small notebooks, zip-locks full of markers, stickers and those Water Wow! coloring books that use refillable water pens. You’re just trying to fill the time between ordering and eating. The problem with handing kids a phone or tablet is the inevitable battle taking it away when it’s time to eat. Art is more fun anyway.
6. Play games – Caught without your coloring books? Be ready to play “I Spy” or “What’s Missing?” (take turns removing an item from the table, such as ketchup, and the rest of the group has to guess what’s missing).
7. Bring extra clothes – I can’t tell you how many restaurant meals have started with my kids knocking their drinks into their laps. it doesn’t have to be a big deal. We mop up, switch t-shirts and move on.
8. Take a walk – Another great way to pass the time while waiting for the food is take a little walk around the restaurant, or even around the block if there are other adults holding down the fort. It’s hard for young kids to sit still, and stretching their legs before the meal can only help.
9. Teach manners – In our family, it’s not essential to have elbows off tables and napkins in laps, but we do require kids to say please and thank you. Restaurants are a great place to practice. There’s also nothing cuter than a 3-year-old ordering her own meal if you can talk her into it.
10. Dangle dessert – Kids starting to act up? Uh oh, looks like that scoop of vanilla ice cream is on the line!
11. Make it quick – In France, they teach kids to sit through multi-course meals, which I admire. But in my California reality, the best I can hope for is about 20 minutes. Sometimes I ask for the check the moment the entrees drop to ensure a speedy exit.
12. Tip well – Servers dealing with my fairly well-mannered but extremely messy brood deserve way more than the standard, and I always make sure to let them know.